The Issue with Neglect
Before we get knee deep in building histories and the desire to preserve, I think it is necessary to shed light on what has inspired this blog in the first place, buildings that have been razed in Milwaukee, and what more often than not leads to this happening. While some occurrences of building destruction our out of our hands, like fire, others are all together to common and increasingly frustrating battles of demolition by neglect and the wake of “development opportunities” leading to the loss of Milwaukee’s historic buildings. The former, demolition by neglect, in my mind is for whatever reason be it apathy, economic hardship, or what have you, a building is left to fall apart. Perhaps left vacant and abandoned or occupied without much effort to maintain the building, it sits deteriorating to the point that either there are few to no economic ways to rehab the building short of a developer’s labor of love, a love that few developers seem to possess, or it is razed. Few developers are willing to take a disheveled historic property under their wing and recycle the building for adaptive reuse in its historic integrity; most prefer to tear it down, discard the pieces and start anew with a building created in his or her own image…with a parking garage. Not that there is anything wrong with new buildings, but let’s be honest, they often don’t possess the character of an old historic building; of a structure that will never be duplicated in the present time. To tear it down and build another new building, which unfortunately have become all too generic and common place, is a bit of a travesty. Within the last year two of Milwaukee’s oldest buildings were lost to this tale of ongoing neglect and eventual demolition, both relics of Milwaukee’s pre-Civil War history.
In November 2009, the one hundred and fifty-six year old Gipfel Union Brewery building was demolished on a Saturday afternoon after fifteen years of ownership change and failed development plans. Supposed plans for expanding the Bradley Center and for a multi-million dollar hotel-condo-office-retail development that would supposedly incorporate the Gipfel building, plans for two parcels of land that still sit vacant years after their conception, plans that moved Gipfel from its home just north of the Bradley Center on the 400 block of West Juneau Avenue and moved it blocks away behind the Sydney Hih building, sacrificing the bottom few feet of the brewery buildings first floor. This is where I first encountered this building, sitting awkwardly on a stacked grid of I-beams, missing parts of its exterior walls, gaping holes allowing views of the dilapidated interior, painted an enigmatic shade of pale blue, and wrapped in steel ties left to wonder what someone was planning to do with this building; why was it sitting here? After passing its deteriorating shell for weeks, months, years, I wondered how it had gotten there in the first place, what happened to you Gipfel? By the time I knew, it was gone. The development abandoned and the Gipfel beyond repair.
Similarly, hidden in the shadows of the Rockwell Automation Headquarters and the Allen-Bradley Clock Tower on South 1st Street, I happened to encounter one of the oldest and probably forgotten houses in Milwaukee while driving to Bay View. The petite double house was constructed around 1845 by brick maker Alanson Sweet near Walker’s Point at what is currently 1216 South 1st Street. The north half of the double house was razed in the 1930s while the southern half was swallowed up by industrial buildings over the subsequent decades. Left vacant and in disrepair, the chimney fell and caused the roof to collapse in April of 2010. Unfortunately, any plans to rehab the small house to its somewhat original integrity came to a screeching halt, and Alanson Sweets’ house was razed in the months to follow.
Both buildings roused interest to return their historic integrity and find some adaptive reuse for the buildings. Unfortunately for Gipfel, the price to return the building to a reusable historic structure was not one that could be met, and for the Sweet House, the roof’s collapse beat any plans to rehab the building to the punch.